U.S. should increase funding for democracy promotion in Iran
Iranian democracy is struggling but would benefit from an infusion of resources and support from the U.S.
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Structurally, Iran's middle-income status; its reasonably high levels of education and information; and its relatively strong national identity, drawing on a 5,000-year history, all augur well for Iran's democratic prospects if a transition were to begin. The legitimacy of the regime is already weak and declining among the broad bulk of the population. Dictators have a much greater probability of maintaining autocratic rule if they sustain either an ideology or a project that morally justifies their form of rule. In the first years of the Islamic republic, Khomeini championed such an ideology, which enjoyed popular support. He also internationally pursued an ideological mission that helped to create enemies abroad and thereby increase popular support for defending the regime at home. Today, however, Khomeini's ideological creed offers the existing regime little or no legitimacy. The cataclysmic toll of the war with Iraq from 1980 to 1988 exhausted popular support for revolutionary ideas and the regime that propagated them.
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Ending ILSA sanctions is sometimes mooted as a unilateral action. Sanctions have had little effect on the Iranian economy, but serve a valuable political purpose of disapproval. Lifting sanctions to bribe the Iranian government out of doing something it initiated has the moral hazard so often displayed in policy choices about North Korea. As currently designed, however, ILSA sanctions prevent Iranian expatriates from sending money into the country. Revising the law to capitalize on expatriate funding of activities that diversify information, build civil society, and reduce the Iranian government's ability to control political activity would empower private citizens who share our commitment to changing the Iranian government. The U.S. has had some success discouraging international financial institutions, public and private, from making capital available to Iran. This should be continued as a way of isolating Iran from the economic opportunity it so badly needs to reduce the 20 percent unemployment rate the government admits to among those under the age of 29.
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Nonetheless, important voices in Iran are warning of the price the country could pay for its present confrontational stance. Many in the Iranian ruling circles see a nuclear program as less valuable than integration in the global economy, which they fear the nuclear program may threaten.12 These voices could well grow louder if Iran's circumstances were to change, caused by: (a) falling oil prices; (b) domestic discontent at unrealized populist economic promises; (c) a less propitious international environment due to a U.S. exit from Iraq; (d) the refusal of Iran's neighbors to be intimidated by Iran's bellicose policies; and (e) more intense pressure on Iran concerning its nuclear program.
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Soft power. Regime change is the best, maybe the only path to achieving all three main American objectives [restraining Iran's external behaviour, moderating its domestic politics, and reversing its nuclear-weapons programme]. But explicit American efforts to bring about such change, whether overt or covert, will probably have the reverse effect, helping perpetuate the regime and strengthen its current leaders. For the immediate future, therefore, the best thing the United States can do to encourage political reform in Iran is to support democratisation in other Middle Eastern countries where the United States has greater access and influence. Adopting a region-wide and indeed globally consistent approach to democratisation is important to establishing the credibility of American support for reform in Iran.
Soft power should be envisaged more as a magnet than a lever. The best way of employing the attractive elements of American society is simply to remove barriers to exposure. Making Internet censorship more difficult is one way of doing this. Facilitating travel, commerce and study abroad is alsoimportant. Sanctions erect barriers to his kind of exposure. These barriers represent an unavoidable trade-off between the objectives of containment and the promotion of domestic reform, a trade-off that needs to be carefully considered each time new sanctions are levied or old ones renewed.
Reformers in Iran are pressing for evolution, not revolution. The Green Movement is not seeking to overturn the Iranian constitution’s unique mixture of republican and Islamic elements, but rather to give more reality to the former. Oddly enough, President Ahmadinejad is challenging the status quo from the other end of the political spectrum. In the short term, neither the Green Movement nor Ahmadinejad seems likely to succeed. But Iran has a young, reasonably well-educated population, one increasingly plugged into the world around it. Even as the United States seeks to isolate and penalise Iran for its external misbehaviour and nuclear ambitions, it should be seeking to maximise the exposure of its population to America, the West and the newly dynamic Middle East. By the same token, the United States should avoid any association with separatist elements and extremist groups, whom the vast bulk of the Iranian people reject.